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I suppose this must be death
on October 17, 2001
Ambrose Bierce's most famous story is An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and many of his stories follow that same kind of pattern: an event is related with some surprising or revelatory twist at the end. The stories of the Civil War are especially interesting as they are not at all typical writings about war. Bierce does not see the battle so much as one of North against South rather he sees the war as the child sees the war in his story Chickamauga, his attitude is one combining fascination at the spectacle and utter disgust. Life is an unresolved jumble of confused forces and mixed emotions for everyone in Bierce's haunting tales that read like dreams but dreams informed by much contact with reality as Bierce was wounded twice(once in the head)in the war he describes. The descriptions of Civil War battles are told with great precision(and alone make this volume worth having) though there is always an additional element to make them more than war reportage, Bierce turns his accounts into stories because he sees through all the cannon smoke to the small detail which encapsulates the essential thing about an event. In one of my favorites, Killed at Resaca, a courageous captain gallops across a field to deliver a crucial message only to find the field is impassable because of a deep gully, instead of turning around however he merely waits for the enemy to shoot him. Going through his personal things a fellow soldier, the narrator of the story, finds a letter which explains this resolve. The letter reads:"...I could bear to hear of my soldier- lover's death, but not of his cowardice." Later, when the narrator has a chance to return the letter to its author he is asked by her how her soldier-lover died. "He was bitten by a snake,"is the narrators reply. Bierce's pen was dipped in wormwood and acid said H.L. Mencken. His stories of soldiers and civilians are told with a bitter and venomous clarity. His humor was always of the sort aquainted with the gallows. He said at age 71,"I am so old I am ashamed to be alive." And so he rode off to Mexico. It's hard to imagine Stephen Crane existing without the example of Ambrose Bierce just as it is hard to imagine Bierce without Poe. What a strange tradition of independents we have.